rené daumal at age 15 experimenting
"paroptic vision" at the home of his teacher,
rené maublanc, who took this photo.
rené daumal on may 19, 1944, three days
his passing, photographed
by his friend luc dietrich.
rené daumal's principal works
A Night of Serious Drinking
Rasa, of Knowledge of the Self
plus selected poems in
The Poetry of Surrealism
The Random House Book of
Twentieth-Century French Poetry
by rené daumal
As with magic, poetry is black or white, depending on whether it serves
the sub-human or the superhuman.
The same innate tendencies govern the machinery of the white poet and
the black poet. Some call these tendencies a mysterious gift, a mark
of superior powers; others an infirmity or a curse. No matter. Or rather,
yes! - it matters highly, but we have not yet reached the point of being
able to understand the origin of our essential structures. He who could
understand them would deliver himself from them. The white poet seems
to understand his poetic nature, to free himself from it and make it
serve. The black poet uses it and becomes its slave.
But what is this "gift" common to all poets? It is a particular
connection between the various lives which make up our life, such that
each manifestation of one of them is no longer simply its exclusive sign,
but could become, through an internal resonance, a sign of the emotion
that at a given moment is one's own color, sound or taste. This central
emotion, deeply hidden within us, vibrates and shines only in rare instants.
For the poet, these instants will be poetic moments, and at such a moment
all his thoughts, feelings, movements and words will be the signs of
this central emotion. And when the unity of their meaning is realized
in an image stated in words, then most especially will we say that he
is a poet. This is what we will call the "poetic gift," for
want of knowing more about it.
The poet has a rather unclear notion of his gift. The black poet exploits
it for his personal satisfaction. He believes that he can take credit
for this gift, that he himself voluntarily makes poems. Or else, giving
in to the mechanism of resonant meanings, he prides himself on being
possessed by a superior mind, which has chosen him as its medium. In
both cases, the poetic gift serves only pride and delusive imagination.
Whether schemer or visionary, the black poet lies to himself and believes
he is someone. Pride, lies - still a third term characterizes him: laziness.
Not that he doesn't act and struggle, or that it seems to come from outside.
But all this movement happens by itself; he keeps from personally intervening himself - this poor, naked self that wants
neither to be seen nor to see itself as poor and naked, that each of
us tries so hard to conceal
under masks. It is the "gift" that operates in him, and he
takes pleasure in it, like a voyeur, without showing himself. He wraps
himself in the way the soft-bellied hermit crab takes shelter and adorns
itself in the shell of the murex, made to produce royal purple and not
to clothe shameful little runts. Laziness at seeing oneself, at being
seen; fear of having no richness other than the responsibilities one
assumes: this is the laziness I'm speaking of - oh mother of all my vices!
Black poetry is fertile in wonders like dreams and opium. The black poet
tastes every pleasure, adorns himself in every ornament, exercises every
power - in his imagination. The white poet prefers reality, even paltry
reality, to these rich lies. His work is an incessant struggle against
pride, imagination and laziness. Accepting his gift, even if he suffers
from it and suffers from suffering, he seeks to make it serve ends greater
than his selfish desires: the as-yet-unknown cause of this gift.
I will not say: so-and-so is a white poet, so-and-so is a black poet.
This would be to fall from ideas into opinions, discussions and error.
I will not even say: so-and-so has the poetic gift, so-and-so does not.
Do I have it? Often I doubt it; sometimes I strongly believe I do. I
am never certain once and for all. Each time dawn appears, the mystery
is there in its entirety. But if I was once a poet, I wish to be a white
one. In fact, all human poetry is a mixture of white and black; but some
tends toward whiteness, the other blackness.That which tends toward blackness
need make no effort. It follows the natural, sub-human downward slope.
One need not make an effort to brag, to dream, to lie and be lazy; nor
to calculate and scheme, when calculating and scheming are for the benefit
of vanity, imagination or inertia. But white poetry goes uphill. It swims
upstream like the trout to go spawn in its birthplace. It holds fast,
by force and by cunning, against the whims of the rapids and the eddies.
It does not let itself be distracted by the shimmering of passing bubbles,
nor be swept away by the current toward soft, muddy valleys.
How does the poet who wants to become white wage this battle? I will
tell you how I try to wage it, in my rare better moments, so that one
day, if I am a poet, my poetry - grey as it may be - will exude at least
a desire for whiteness.
I will distinguish three phases of the poetic operation: the luminous
seed, the clothing in images, and verbal expression.
Every poem is born of a seed, dark at first, which we must make luminous
for it to produce fruits of light. With the black poet, the seed remains
dark and produces blind, subterranean vegetation. To make it shine, one
must create silence, for this seed is the Thing-to-be-said itself, the
central emotion that seeks to express itself through my whole machine.
The machine by itself is dark, but it likes to proclaim itself luminous,
and manages to make itself believed. As soon as it is set in motion by
the seed's germination, it claims to be acting under its own steam, it
shows off for the perverse pleasure of each of its levers and gears.
So be quiet, machine! Work and shut up! Silence to word games, memorized
lines, memories fortuitously assembled; silence to ambition, to the desire
to shine - for only light shines by itself; silence to self-flattery
and self-pity; silence to the rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise!
And silence parts the shadows, the seed begins to glow, lighting, not
lit. That is what you have to do. It is very difficult, but each little
effort receives a little glimmer of light in reward. The Thing-to-be-said
then appears in its most intimate form, as an eternal certainty - a pinpoint
of light containing the immensity of the desire for Being.
The second phase is the clothing of the luminous seed, which reveals
but is not revealed, invisible like light and silent like sound - its
clothing in the images that will make it manifest. Here again, reviewing
these images, one must reject and chain down those which would serve
only easiness, lies and pride. So many beauties we would like to show
off. But once the order is established, we must let the seed itself choose
the plant or animal in which it will clothe itself by giving it life.
And third comes the verbal expression, for which it is no longer a matter
simply of internal work, but also of external science and know-how. The
seed has its own respiration. Its breath takes possession of the expressive
mechanisms by communicating its rhythm to them. Thus, these mechanisms
should, first of all, be well oiled and just relaxed enough so that they
do not start dancing their own dances and scanning incongruous meters.
And as it bends the sounds of language to its breath, the Thing-to-be-said
also compels them to contain its images. Now, how does it carry out this
double operation? That is the mystery. It is not by intellectual scheming:
that would require too much time; nor by instinct, for instinct does
not invent. This power is exercised thanks to the particular relation
that exists between the various elements of the poet's machinery, and
that unites matters as different as emotions, images, concepts and sounds
in a single living substance. The life of this new organism is the poet's
The black poet does almost precisely the opposite, although the exact
semblance of these operations is performed in him. His poetry, of course,
opens a number of worlds to him, but they are worlds without Sun, lit
by a hundred fantastic moons, populated by phantoms, decorated with mirages
and sometimes paved with good intentions. White poetry opens the door
to only one world, that of the unique Sun, without false wonders, real.
I have said what one must do to become a white poet. As if it were that
easy! Even in prose, in ordinary speech and writing (as in all aspects
of my daily life), all that I produce is grey, salt-and-pepper, soiled,
a mixture of light and darkness. And so I take up the struggle after
the fact. I re-read myself. In my sentences, I see words, expressions,
interferences that do not serve the Thing-to-be-said: an image that meant
to be strange, a pun that thought it was funny, the pedantry of a certain
prig who would do better to stay seated at his desk instead of coming
to play the fipple flute in my string quartet. And remarkably enough,
it is simultaneously a mistake in taste, style, or even syntax. Language
itself seems set up in such a way as to detect the intruders for me.
Few mistakes are purely technical. Almost all of them are my mistakes.
And I cross out, and I correct, with the joy one can have at cutting
a gangrenous limb from one's body.
Reprinted with permission from The Powers of the
Word: Selected Essays and Notes 1927-1943, by René Daumal, edited
and translated by Mark Polizzotti, published by City Lights Books, 1991.
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